Theo Sotoodehnia '22
The death of rural newspapers is often lamented, and I do not doubt their decline has had devastating effects on the communities they serve. A tragedy which I believe draws too little attention, though, is the decline of the mid-sized daily newspaper. For example, Milwaukee, Wisconsin had two daily papers in the 1970’s. Milwaukee was no outlier, as many mid-sized American cities (for the purposes of this article, think metro areas of roughly 250,000 to 1,500,000 people) had more than one daily paper. Not only did residents of these cities have multiple papers to choose from, but also the papers themselves were larger operations altogether. A self respecting daily paper, also called a “daily,” had not only full time city hall, state house, and Capitol hill bureaus, but also local arts reporters and scores of investigative journalists. Local dailies vigorously covered national news, but they drew out from each story a unique regional significance.
That is what is lost today. Most mid-sized American cities still have dailies, but those papers are emaciated, atrophied remnants of their former vibrancy. A wave of consolidation in print media that began in the 1980’s has left most mid-sized papers subsumed into large media conglomerates, with much of their reporting capabilities centralized and shared. A clear example of this is the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which is now owned by Gannett (the publisher of USA Today). On the front page, one will find local reporting from Milwaukee-based reporters, and national reporting straight from USA Today. The Journal-Sentinel’s readers no longer benefit from analysis on how new pieces of federal legislation will affect their community. It is important to recognize that in a country as large and diverse as the United States, a country with over 328,000,000 people spread across 50 states, rules and regulations affect different localities in different ways. Environmental regulations great for a fisherman in Alaska might be catastrophic for a farmer in Arkansas, and vice versa.
When local papers cease to independently cover important pieces of national news, their readers lose more than an important perspective: they lose a voice in the halls of power. In the mid-twentieth century, a senator who voted against his constituents’ interests would be skewered in the next day's local paper. That paper would have dedicated Capitol Hill staff hounding their congressional delegation on each and every vote they cast. Issues that may not affect large enough swaths of the country to be covered in national newspapers and make the evening news would get the publicity they deserve in strong local papers.
It does not take a genius to extrapolate this local accountability to politician’s willingness to break with the party line. In a national news environment, where cable news sets the agenda, congressmen and senators have little incentive to do anything but tow the party line. Though it would be an oversimplification to claim that today’s hyper-partisanship can be solely attributed to the decline in rigorous reporting by local media, local papers' multi-decade decline has played a part in it. Mid-sized newspapers are an important link in the chain of American democracy, and—to end with a tired but true cliché—we are only as strong as our weakest link.
The content of this article, as with every article posted on The Exchanged, does not represent the views of the staff of The Exchanged nor the National Cathedral School, St. Albans School, Protestant Episcopal Foundation, or any employee thereof. Opinions written are those of the writer and the writer alone.